Correspondence of Oscar Slater, the Jewish prisoner championed by Arthur Conan Doyle

Correspondence of Oscar Slater, the Jewish prisoner championed by Arthur Conan Doyle

SLATER, Oscar [Oscar Leschziner] (1872-1948). A rich and substantial archive of 110 letters, telegrams and cards sent between 1927 and 1930 to Leslie Isaac Reade (1904-1989), a young lawyer who worked to exonerate Slater from the charge of murder, and who served as a sympathetic ear for Slater's tumultuous relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle. Included are over 100 pages of correspondence from Slater and almost 70 pages of correspondence from Glasgow journalist William Park, along with letters, notes, clippings and other materials from the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Scottish members of Parliament, and Doyle himself. With these are Reade's annotated copy of William Roughead's edition of the Slater case, and a note from the novelist John Mortimer. Stored for over 90 years, the archive offers considerable detail on the denouement of one of the most remarkable dramas of Scottish legal history, introducing a hitherto unknown key player, and presenting a fundamentally new, intimate portrait of the central figure of that drama. Each item is individually filed in three legal-sized archival boxes, 1.5 linear feet.

     Oscar Slater was the subject of one of the most important criminal cases in Scottish history. Anti-Semitic sentiment played a role in the rhetoric surrounding his conviction, and Slater's case is often compared to the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Wrongfully convicted of murder in 1909, Slater served almost twenty years in prison.  His release was secured through the efforts of a number of writers and journalists protesting an obvious miscarriage of justice. Chief among his defenders was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a book on Slater in 1912 and subsidized the 1927 publication of The Truth About Oscar Slater, a detailed analysis of the case by William Park. Park's book, the J'Accuse of the Slater affair, presented substantial new evidence that demonstrated Slater's innocence. After his release, Slater and his supporters worked to overturn his conviction and seek redress. In the course of these latter actions, Slate and Doyle had a public falling out. The case is much studied by legal scholars, Scottish historians, and biographers of Conan Doyle.[1]


Oscar Slater, 1909 (National Archives of Scotland)

     The present archive significantly broadens the historical record by introducing Leslie Isaac Reade, a young lawyer who worked in London first to secure Slater's release, then to overturn his conviction and see him compensated for his years of imprisonment. Slater’s letters to Reade represents the largest surviving body of correspondence from Slater in the crucial years following his release from prison. They offers a unique perspective on his struggles to rehabilitate himself and his reputation. His letters reveal a man swinging between powerful emotions, seeking to find a path between gratitude and outrage, the profound pain of victimization and the desire to forge ahead with dignity. The archive also includes extensive correspondence from William Park, who devoted the last years of his life to defend an innocent man. There are letters and notes from journalists, politicians, lawyers, and other public figures including Doyle, Leopold Greenberg, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, E. Clapham Palmer, whose articles for the Daily News brought the case before the wider public, William Goodhart, the American lawyer who represented Slater in New York, William Wright, Liberal MP for Rutherglen, and Rose Rosenberg, secretary to Ramsay MacDonald. In addition to offering new intimate portraits of Slater and Park, this archive is also a source of primary material on Conan Doyle. Both Slater and Park quote from Doyle in their letters to Reade, and include transcripts of his communications that have not otherwise survived. 

     The archive is organized into five series:

I. Letters from Oscar Leschzinger (Slater) to Leslie Reade

II. Correspondence between William Park, Helen Park, and Leslie Reade

III. Other correspondents to Leslie Reade

IV. Publications

V. Miscellaneous


     A freshly-minted lawyer with offices in the Inner Temple, Leslie Isaac Reade launched a campaign for justice soon after reading The Truth About Oscar Slater. In September 1927 he wrote to Park in care of the publisher, and began contacting newspaper editors to interest them in the case. He was rebuffed by Clifford Sharp of the New Statesman, but received a warmer reception from E. C. Palmer, best known to the reading public by his nom de plume, "The Pilgrim," and from Leopold Greenberg of the Jewish Chronicle. In October, Reade lobbied A. M. Langdon, the well-connected secretary of the Council of Legal Education. Langdon was impressed with the materials Reade gave him. Noting that "this is essentially a Scotch question in which a Scotsman should move," Landgon contacted Hugh Pattison MacMillan, who took up Slater's cause. In late October Reade also met with government figures to enlist their help. “As a Scottish M.P. … I will do what I can,” responded one. With the powerful allies Reade mustered, things moved quickly. Three weeks after Reade contacted Langdon, Slater was free. Reade's father sent a telegram: “Sincerest congratulations upon your triumphant efforts on Oscar Slater’s release."

     Reade continued to work with Slater and Park though the legal processes of exoneration and restitution. Reade's extensive correspondence with Park reveals the depth of the journalist's dedication to seeing justice done long after the publication of his book. Together Park and Reade worried over evidence, witnesses, and legal strategy. Writing from Mains House, Ballantrae, Ayrshire, Park also asked Reade for help on personal matters, and their candid correspondence reveals a great deal about Park's unfortunate life, and about Glasgow's seamy underside -- Park was married to a woman he described as "a religiously wasted sexual & moral pervert," who doped him with narcotics so she could visit her lover. Park took ill in June 1928 and died on 28 October. Park's letters are supplemented by those of his sister, who offers strong opinions about Slater, Doyle, and the ways in which the press credited Doyle for Park's work.

     Slater's letters to Reade make up the bulk of the archive, and they are voluminous -- almost 70 pieces of correspondence totaling more than 100 pages. The earliest communication here from Slater is dated 19 June 1928, just after Slater had withdrawn his appeal, much to Park's fury. Over the next year and a half (the correspondence ends on December 1930), Slater turned to Reade repeatedly for legal and financial advice, though he did not always heed the younger man’s counsel.  It seems clear from the correspondence that Reade represented much more than a source of professional opinion. Slater wrote him frequently, sometimes several times a week, to express his hopes, fears, and frustrations.

     One of the many peculiarities of the case is the way that Slater was so often eclipsed by his defenders, who were presented as men of valor sacrificing themselves for an individual of tarnished reputation who was perhaps not entirely worthy of their attentions. In retrospect, Slater might have shared David Copperfield's plaintive uncertainty about "whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else." Most of the books on the subject focus on Doyle rather than Slater. William Park dedicated his book on the Slater case not to the victim languishing in prison but rather to the detective John Thomson Trench. Doyle appears to have been motivated more by an abstract devotion to the rule of law than by any strong feelings of empathy – for him the Slater affair appears to have been the legal analogue of taking up the white man’s burden. Doyle’s affective distance from the man whose case he pleaded is captured in his awkward description of Slater as an ‘alien German Jew.’[2] This is not a phrase Reade would ever have used. Although they hailed from very different backgrounds, there were fundamental bonds of experience that connected the two men.

     Like Slater, Reade was Jewish, and an immigrant.  He was born Isaac Leslie Rosenbaum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the son of a produce merchant. His father had emigrated from Lithuania in 1891, and reportedly had served in the Boer War; his mother was British.  In 1919 the family moved to New York. Reade was sent to England to attend first University College School, and then St. Johns College, Oxford, where he gained second class honours in English and graduated BA in July 1924.[3]


Reade in 1938 (left) and as "B. Vir Bludski" in 1923 (right)

     During his last term at Oxford Reade gained considerable anonymous notoriety through his comic performance in the mock parliamentary campaign of the ‘Futuro-Bolshevik’ B. Vir Bludski, who claimed to have ‘put the beer in Siberia.’ Running against "Miss Julia Jorrocks," who stood for the abolition of bachelors, and supported by almost two dozen undergraduates in false beards, Bludski ran on a 14 point platform that included the abolition of employment, the abolition of ‘plus fours and other capitalist institutions,’ the ‘instant execution of Proctors,’ the establishment of a free vodka fountain at Carfax, ‘free trade in bananas,’ and so on.[4]  It was a performance born, at least as far as Reade’s involvement went, out of both familiarity and affection. His work after graduation would reveal his devotion to Jewish and progressive causes.[5]


Reade (center, wearing top hat) as Bludski, 1923 (Pembroke College, Oxford)

     In 1924, the entire Rosenbaum family changed their name to Reade. His father began trading in stocks and securities, and Leslie began reading law. He passed the bar examination in constitutional law and legal history in March 1925, and the final examination in 1926. Reade set up an office at 1 Essex Court, Inner Temple. [6]

     Resident in London rather than Glasgow, Reade worked behind the scenes to support court proceedings and bolster political support and public opinion. It was Reade who set in motion the process of having a new lawyer assigned to Slater's case, it was he who reached out to recruit Scottish MPs to the cause, and it was he who ensured that the press would cover the affair. His anonymous contributions to the Jewish Chronicle and other periodicals helped to galvanize public opinion. Throughout the process, Reade served as an essential -- though hitherto unrecognized -- force in the campaign to see justice done.

     As this correspondence reveals, both William Park and Slater regularly turned to Reade for advice. He was instrumental in the campaign – ultimately unsuccessful – to have the Scottish government compensate Slater for his legal fees. Had he been successful, Reade wrote in a letter now at the Glasgow City Archives, relations between Conan Doyle and Slater would not have broken down.[7] In these letters, Slater regularly asks Reade to intercede on his behalf with jurists, judges, newspaper editors, and Doyle himself. Although his correspondence with Slater is extensive, it is clear that their relationship went beyond these pages.  There are numerous references to meetings in person.  When he traveled to the continent, Reade sent home presents for Slater; in turn, Slater had his sister bake treats for the young lawyer. 

     The Slater who emerges from this correspondence is a very different and much more sympathetic figure than the sullen, obstreperous ingrate generally portrayed in the final chapters of books on the case that celebrate Doyle’s selfless heroism. What we see here is a not a subject of someone else’s cause but a man in his own right struggling to rebuild his life after years of privation. Slater tells Reade about life in his boarding house and of making new friends. He talks about his invention of a mobile fire escape and his quest to obtain a patent, which was eventually granted.[8] He speaks of his dream of becoming naturalized as a citizen. Quite apart from all the drama of the Scottish justice system and his relationship with Doyle, the letters offer an extraordinary portrait of an ex-prisoner’s struggles to reintegrate himself into mainstream society.

     The Doyle who emerges from these pages is, we regret to say, rather monstrous. One is reminded of Inspector Javert, or a creditor out of the pages of Dickens. Slater copies one demand letter from Doyle and speaks of others that appear not to have survived. He describes one he received on 14 August 1928 where Doyle wrote: ‘Now that I have learned to know you I have no desire for further direct correspondence.’ The words sent a chill down Slater’s spine. ‘I only hope that he didn’t meant, when writing that, that he intends to correspond with me through the Press, because I don’t like to answer him.’ But of course, it was precisely through the newspapers that Doyle would pursue his demand. “I am outraged at Conan Doyle’s treatment of poor Slater," wrote Helen Park in September 1928.

     There is an extraordinary sequence in the letters from late summer, 1929. On 23 August Slater writes Reade to say that he is going to take a vacation in Brighton. On 9 September he writes again.  After two and a half weeks at the beach he is having a wonderful time.  He feels healthy and rested. Old friends are coming to visit from Bremen. He has had a long conversation with a fellow he met who served in the army in Palestine. He is enjoying the pastries that Reade has sent from his holiday travels. All seems idyllic.  Then suddenly disaster strikes. The morning papers feature a new attack by Doyle that has been printed widely.  Slater is in shock. ‘He called me ungrateful dog and a liar.’ Reporters descend on him. He tries to avoid them but once again his life is in chaos....

     In a late letter, Slater offers a bizarre coda to the story. After Doyle’s death in July 1930, he was contacted by a spiritualist who tried to involve him in a fraudulent scheme, probably involving posthumous conversations with the writer. Slater declined.


Slater (left) with Rabbi ("Reverend") E. P. Phillips, Glasgow, 1927

     A final feature of this archive worth emphasizing is the light it sheds on the Jewish dimensions of the Slater affair.  The episode has long been recognized as having been tainted with a reflexive anti-Semitism, and historian Ben Braber has noted the discomfort the case precipitated among the Jewish community in Glasgow.[9]  But these letters offer a much more complex picture.  Like ‘Reverend’ Eleazer P. Phillips, Reade was clearly drawn to Slater’s cause because of a shared faith. The letters reveal the extent to which he worked closely with Greenberg to use the Jewish Chronicle as a vehicle for building support among the broader Jewish community. And most interestingly, the letters reveal the extent to which Slater embraced his Jewish identity. There are occasional Yiddishisms in the letters, and when one newspaper published a report that Slater was said to be engaged to ‘a full-blooded Negress,’ he joked with Reade that they might as well have said that ‘the Negress was a Jewess also … [and] also circumcised.’  More seriously, in one of the last letters to Reade, Slater speaks about observing the High Holy Days in prison, and his plans to join a congregation:

I will also see to become a member of some Jewish Synagogue. Sorry to say I am not a great Jew, yet I am never ashamed of my Religion. At Peterhead I have shown it to them. I was the only Jew there for many years yet I have kept for 19 years the Jewish New year & Atonement day the ‘Fast.’

     The Slater–Reade archive thus invites a fundamental reconsideration of "the Scottish Dreyfus affair." The vital new material offered here will be of keen interest to biographers of Arthur Conan Doyle, and researchers in legal history, Jewish history, and Scottish social history more broadly.


Provenance: Reportedly sold by Reade through Phillips Son & Neale in the 1970s; by inheritance to the daughter-in-law of the purchaser (see the letter from John Mortimer in Series Five). At some point Reade's papers appears to have been split up among several dealers, though whether this was done in the 1970s or more recently we cannot say. We have done our best to reconstitute the archive.


[1] The literature on the case includes ODNB; William Roughead, Trial of Oscar Slater (Hodge, 1910; rev. 1915; rev. 1925; rev. 1950), Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case of Oscar Slater (Hodder & Stoughton, 1912); William Park, The Truth about Oscar Slater (London: Psychic Press, [1927]); Edgar Wallace, "Release Oscar Slater!," John Bull 41, no 1073 (8 Jan 1927); Peter Hunt: Oscar Slater: The great suspect (Carroll & Nicholson, 1951); Jack House, Square Mile of Murder (Chambers, 1961); Thomas Toughill, Oscar Slater: The mystery solved (Canongate, 1993; rev. 2012); Richard Whittington-Egan, The Oscar Slater murder story: new light on a classic mystery (Wilson, 2001; rev. 2011); Ben Brabner, “The Trial of Oscar Slater (1909) and Anti-Jewish Prejudices in Edwardian Glasgow,” History 88 (2003) 262-79; James Morton, Justice denied: Extraordinary miscarriages of justice (Robinson, 2015); Margalit Fox, Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House, 2018); etc.

[2] Arthur Conan Doyle, “Introduction to the Case,” in The Truth about Oscar Slater (London: Psychic Press, [1927]), p. 5.

[3] Information on Rosenbaum/Reade at Oxford supplied by Simon Bailey, Keeper of the University Archives, Bodleian Library. See also United States Census, 1920, Aaron W. Rosenbaum, Manhattan Assembly District 11, New York, New York, United States; ED 810, sheet 15A, line 34, family 344, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1204; FHL microfilm 1,821,204; “Says Best Play One Which Closed Opening Night,” Des Moines Tribune, 4 April 1938, p. 11.

[4] Oxford Chronicle, 5 December 1923; Daily Sketch 5 December 1923; Morning Post 6 December 1923; Evening Standard 6 December 1923; Manchester Guardian 6 December 1923; Westminster Gazette 6 December 1923; Oxford Chronicle 7 December 1923; Littell’s Living Age 320 (1924) p. 141. Pembroke College has a truly wonderful photograph of the members of the Bludski campaign online at Reade is seated at center, in a top hat. "Julia Jorrocks" was a student from Magdalene in drag.

[5] After his involvement with Slater, Reade gradually shifted his focus to writing. With Edward S. Greenbaum (1890-1970), a New Yor­k lawyer highly active in Jewish causes who served in both WWI and WWII, Reade wrote a book on British pretrial practices, King’s Bench Masters and English Interlocutory Practice (1932). In 1929, he wrote his first play, The Unpossessed, about miners in Staffordshire. In 1934, the Progressive Players staged his drama, Take Heed, a play on the growing Nazi threat featuring a German professor married to a Jewish wife. The International Workers of the World commissioned him to write a play on the Haymarket riots in 1938.  Other plays, radio scripts, and screenplays followed.  His final work, The Ship that Stood Still, published posthumously in 1993, offered a history of the SS Californian, a steamship sailing near the Titanic that could have saved many lives but failed to respond to the calls of distress.  The crew of the Californian could be chastised for declining to help while others suffered; Leslie Reade could not.

[6] Times (London), 23 April 1925, p.5; 13 January 1926, p. 18; Simon Bailey, pers. comm.; London Gazette 5 December 1924, p. 8931.

[7] See Reade to Doyle, 23 Oct 1929, Oscar Slater Papers, Glasgow City Archives, Collection GB243/TD1560, ser. 5, no. 35.

[8] GB319412, priority date 28 Feb 1929.

[9] Ben Braber, The Trial of Oscar Slater (1909) and Anti-Jewish Prejudices in Edwardian Glasgow, History 88 (2003) 262-79; idem, Jews in Glasgow, 1879-1939: immigration and integration (2007), pp. 23 et seq.

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    Correspondence of Oscar Slater, the Jewish prisoner championed by Arthur Conan Doyle